We live the life of renunciation because it reflects our heart’s deepest yearning.
It quickens an inner longing to awaken to our true inheritance.
Today I would like to ask that we ponder on the question, “What is the value and the place of the celibate renunciant community in our modern world?”
A number of years ago when I was about to deliver my first public Dhamma talk, a friend mentioned to me by way of encouragement that talking about Dhamma was like contemplating out loud, giving voice to what one does anyway. It is in this spirit that I ask to talk with you today. Ideally, we would have a respected and venerable elder to conduct this ordination ceremony and to address this particularly important subject; but such individuals are rare in the world, so we have to make do with what we have at hand.
How relevant is the celibate renunciant life at this time? I wish to make this enquiry because our participation in this community life, whether as monks, nuns or lay people, will only genuinely serve us if what we are doing is directly relevant in terms of Dhamma. If we are involved for any reasons other than those that accord with our heart’s deepest longing for truth, then we could be creating more difficulties for ourselves and for each other.
I would like to begin with a story. It is from India where many good teaching-stories arise and involves the Puja routine of an old swami. This swami kept a cat in his ashram. There were very few occasions when the cat and the swami were not seen together. The only time there was ever any problem was at Evening Puja, when the cat sometimes upset the oil lamps. After a few incidents, the swami decided the car could not be present during the Puja any more and took to putting it out just before the ritual began. This solved the problem comfortably and Puja went on for years without interruption. Eventually the swami passed away. All the faithful devotees continued doing Puja and continued to put the cat out before it began. One day the cat died. There was no question in the minds of the devotees: they immediately went out to the market and found another cat for the ashram. It would not be possible to do Puja properly without the ritual of putting the cat outside.
So we want to see in our case how much of what we are doing is Puja and how much is putting the cat out.
The Asians who are here today may have no doubt about the relevance of this renunciant lifestyle. It is part of your culture and has always been there for you. But maybe you should doubt it, particularly if you want to have genuine answers to give to your children when they come to you with their genuine questions.
The Europeans, on the other hand, might prefer to avoid the question, out of fear that something that they hold dear will fall apart. But we don’t have to protect reality. Reality doesn’t fall apart. We do need to opportunities that help us see reality, which is what the renunciant lifestyle is designed for. If we inquire carefully, which implies respectfully, then we don’t have to be afraid. In fact our questioning will give us protection. In this Way of cultivation we are interested in fostering an unobstructed relationship with the truth of our own hearts. We don’t need to fear seeing what is true. The only thing we need to guard ourselves from is unawareness.
I want to consider this matter openly today because I’ve observed a strong force in the Western Buddhist world which, the effect, is attempting to deliver a redundancy notice on the renunciant lifestyle. Often one hearts or reads comments like, “We must create a new form for this time. The traditional celibate form belongs to a different era.” If we are not clear for ourselves about the validity of our involvement in this lifestyle, there is a good chance that this species of celibate monks and nuns will die out. Some might say it is supposed to – and maybe it is. But maybe it isn’t. My twenty-two years of attending to this Way inclines me to believe that it still has life in it- vibrant life and meaning. This is not to say that there isn’t a very real need for adaption.
In considering the process of adaptation it is essential that we are aware of how our assumptions color our perceptions. These are what form the basis of our inquiry. For instance, it used to be that monastics were afforded respect because of their superior learning. Secular education has changed all that. Over the centuries advances in technology have allowed more and more people to have ready access to vast amounts of information. The positive side of this is obvious, but we have lost the context of the person-to-person relationship which communicated much more than just information. We should notice how this might alter our perception of the role of monastics in society – if you can download Discourses and Commentaries from the World Wide Web, why bother visiting a monastery?
Respect given in regard to education is one area. Possibly an even more profoundly important area that has undergone tremendous change is that of sexuality. With the use of modern medical techniques, the consequences of an active sexual life have been obscured – birthing and child-rearing are now an option not an inevitability. Skillful use of contraception can offer significant benefits in the domain of health and population. However these techniques have made it more difficult to appreciate what kind of effort is required to give up sexual intimacy. The impulse to respect celibacy is no longer a straightforward matter.
So let’s take on board collectively, as a Buddhist community, how changing conditions affect our perceptions. This matter will continue to exercise our considered attention as we share this ongoing development of Sangha.
Today being Vesakha Puja, we celebrate the birth of the Buddha, we honor with devotion his Enlightenment and we recall with respect his passing away. And we are celebrating these events together as members of the Sangha of disciples of the Buddha. Sangha as we know means ‘community’ and this community is called the savaka sangha. The word savaka, meaning ‘disciple’, has its roots in a word literally meaning ‘one who listens’. We are all listeners, hearing – each in our own way – the teachings that the Buddha gives us. This sangha of disciples is also called The Four-fold Sangha: monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunis, or in our case siladhara), laymen (upasaka) and laywomen (upasika). The Going Forth ritual we are about to conduct demonstrates the relationship between the renunciant sangha of monks and nuns, also called samana sangha, and the upasaka sangha of laypeople.
This formal ceremony, which is called the Going Forth (pabbajja), appears for some to create a separation between us. People occasionally comment on how they feel sad at the loss of a wonderful friendship; that the closeness of a relationship they had before has been taken away by putting on the robes. Some sadness is understandable, because something valued has been lost. But isn’t there also something gained?
Remember, wisdom sees both sides, whilst attachment to our preferences causes the distortion of seeing only one side. The space that appears in our relationship is also an opportunity for something new to develop between us. Familiarity is not the only context for insight and maybe not even the best. Sometimes we assume a familiarity with each other so as to avoid the pain of the loneliness that we feel. Maybe by emphasizing difference we can arrive at a greater sense of mutual benefit. This comes out of a new quality of relatedness that has a beauty of its own.
The Buddha required that his monks and nuns have an appearance distinct from householders. For instance, he established a training rule that we are not allowed to put our robes aside and wear lay clothes. He wanted renunciants to be noticed. I’m sure he didn’t expect that everybody would want to join the renunciant sangha, as some people suggest might happen. We are different beings with different perspectives. It seems to me that the Buddha saw the celibate renunciant community as having a particular contribution to make, both to the individuals who live the life, and to those who support and witness it.
To use an old-fashioned expression, this life is a calling. In the same way someone might feel called to become a nurse. Have you ever met a real nurse? If you have been ill and had the good fortune to be cared for by someone who is a nurse out of a sense of calling, you will know what I mean. There is a natural healing that comes with their attention. It is in their nature to nurse the sick. Not everyone should or could become a nurse and not everyone should become a monk or nun. If it’s not in one’s nature to live the renunciant life then it won’t work. But I would say that for those by whom such it won’t work. But I would say that for those by whom such a calling is heard, follow it. I truly delight in witnessing occasions such as this, when someone ‘goes forth’. When any of us finds our true way in life, it is a benefit for all beings and that is indeed a cause for celebration.
BENEFITING THE INDIVIDUAL
Giving up Self-seeking
In the individual making the gesture of joining a community of celibate renunciations, there must be a conscious interest in going beyond self-seeking impulses. Without this kind of desire for transforming selfishness, there is a real risk that the entire effort will turn against us. Instead of our wild, animal passions being transformed into that which is truly human, our ego-nature is empowered and we turn into monsters. This does happen.
So in the training that is this lifestyle, we recognise the compulsive tendencies of our ego to seek happiness through mere gratification of desire and we become interested in realizing the true nature of desire itself. We want to experience ‘wanting’ within awareness, without being caught by it. We want to train to go beyond the attachment to wanting. This is skillful wanting, or right practice (samma patipatta). This is the point. On the conventional level we are asked to give up certain physical activities, but the aim is an inner awakening: a renunciation of our commitment to ego-conditioning. The form itself is not it.
In terms of specific training guidelines the Code of Discipline (patimokkhaa) requires that we renounce all personal involvement with money – no bank accounts, not even handling money. It also takes away the security of having control over how and when we eat. We can’t store food, grow food or cook food. The other primary area of behavior regulated by the training is sexuality. A total giving up of all intentional erotic activity is expected. This is extremely difficult for everyone.
But these requirements of physical restraint in the areas of money, food and sex are not to be seen as an end in themselves. And we all need reminding of this, since the struggle that arises from a sincere attempt to keep to these guidelines generate such an intensity that we can lose perspective; we forget the real point and focus too tightly on the rules. This is one reason why, particularly in the early years, it is helpful to live in the community. For the first five years it is required. We often need each other to help us remember not to get overly rigid about it all. As committed materialists, we readily mistake the form to be something more than it is. The form is there to serve the spirit. The cat as put outside so Puja could go on uninterrupted. When the cat died they should have forgotten about it. The Puja was the point. In our case, the heart’s surrender to the Way beyond conditioned, self-seeking preferences is the point. All the conventions we follow are to support that.
Energy from Renunciation
When the spirit of renunciation is alive within us it is not unpleasant to give up things that we want – it begins to feel like a blessing that we have this encouragement to do so. We feel grateful that we have a form that sustains a long-term effort of body, speech and mind to go against the deep, strong flow of self-seeking passions. We know how without it we mightn’t have held the tension long enough for a letting-go to happen. When letting-go does happen we discover tremendous energy – all the energy that was previously locked into maintaining the rigidity. Each time we rediscover this precious reservoir of energy our aspirations are refreshed and reaffirmed.
In the beginning we are inspired from our studies and association with wise being to investigate the possibility of the Way. This interest is a form of energy, but not enough to dissolve the powerful structures of personality belief (sakkaya ditthi). This structure of personality, viewed from one perspective, is quite suitable. Of course we are not saying that there is something wrong with developing a stable personality. But from a spiritual perspective, this is a limited stage of development. It carries with it a burdensome sense of loneliness and isolation. It feels like a prison and impels us to act out of greed and anger and confusion. These three ‘poisons’, as they are classically called in Buddhism, spread their toxic matter throughout our body, heart and mind. They are the nutriment of deluded ‘me-ness’. This training point out that enormous energy is required to undo these structures and renunciation is one of the best ways of finding this energy.
Often people comment to me that they lack energy in practice. Try giving up something and be aware of the intensity of energy in the ‘I want…’ that appears. Energy is there, but it is a matter of how to get in touch with it and how to manage it. We don’t want wild energy to flare up and out in every direction, but neither do we want to be lifeless. The passions are our assets, or our inheritance, that we must free up so they become available for our cultivation of the path.
We all have lots of good intentions and ideas, but sometimes these don’t translate into a practice as simple as getting up in the morning at the time we decided, or being able to focus on a chosen meditation object, let alone releasing some clinging that we know is keeping us back. Herein lies the difficulty of this training. It requires energy and it generates energy. Eventually we come to realize that all of our energy is needed if we are going to proceed. We need it to dissolve the barriers, to penetrate through the inertia of our conditioned nature and see into ourselves. It is this same energy that sustains us when we feel like everything is lost.
The inspiration towards reality is not a sure thing; it changes and sometimes feels like it’s gone altogether. Our initial inspiration is like a loan we receive to get us started on the Way. By the time it runs out we need to have found our own sources of support. Invariably, we run on inspiration as long as possible. Some try to run longer than is possible; but eventually inspiration passes and disillusionment sets in. This might happen five or six or seven years after taking up the renunciant path. If it coincides with another of life’s crises, the impact will be profound. But whenever it occurs there will be a need to refer to others for reflection. Hence, once again, we see the value of community life. If we find trusting, open friendship, then the empathetic relationship is itself a rightly sustainable source of energy. Right relationship itself generates energy. The stage of disillusionment is more terrible then can be described, but it is aa natural and necessary as is spiritual companionship. It wasn’t for nothing that the Buddha said that true spiritual friends (kalyanamitta) are essential.
I would imagine we all recognise that the option of living in community is suitable and healthy for human beings to take up. Communal living has been around a long time. Just how long celibate renunciation communities have been around is not so clear. One thing they do is serve as a sign that affords society a contrasting perspective.
Consider our community here. Our life is based on becoming as conscious as possible of all frustration that arises. We elevate frustration to the level of a spiritual force. This is not what most of the world is up to. Here we are learning to love frustration – that is, embrace it wholeheartedly. We don’t expect to like it. Most people on the other hand are developing strategies to avoid it at all costs. So it’s good to have a group of people such as ourselves around. By being seen to be meeting the frustration of life in a contrasting manner, we offer an example that challenges the generally held assumptions of the world; assumptions that, if unnoticed, could be pushing an entire civilization into over-consumption, over-population and even annihilation. Whatever the actual result might be it is true that the uninspected assumptions of ‘the more the better’ definitely has sad consequences.
Here today at Ratanagiri, the person requesting acceptance into the samana sangha is about to formally request to sign up for our course in applied frustration. He wants to do the work of untangling the habitual contraction that occurs in the face of personal disappointment, and engage the energy that is released in cultivation of wisdom and compassion. I believe the Buddha wanted our world to have this sign as an active teaching in society. We are not a cloistered group of people shut off from the world – quite the opposite. By establishing the restrictions around food the Buddha made it necessary for the monks and nuns and lay people to maintain some contact. The compulsory dependency of the samana sangha on the upasika sangha is designed to keep us involved with each other. We need each other and we know it. Intentional dependency of this kind is aimed at creating a quality of relatedness that is not available elsewhere. This kind of dependency is not a sign of weakness; rather, not being able to depend on others when to do so accords with increased well-being is more likely to be a sign of limitation.
Contemplation on the nature of relationship, then, to ourselves, to each other and to the world, is one of the offerings made to those who live in or visit places like this monastery. A mindfulness of relationships is enhanced by the observable differences between us. Our need for each other is not a symptom of our inadequacy – it is a choice we make out of perceived adequacy. The quiet inner seeking of a renunciant is, as Thomas Merton put it, as relevant as the trees that stand unnoticed in the night converting the carbon dioxide into oxygen for living beings to breathe.
Shortly, a group of nuns will be setting out walking from just north of London to our monastery in Devon. They will be establishing their own community there for the first time. I don’t know what they have in the way of safety nets on this journey, but generally speaking it is their intention to walk all they way, trusting that the people they meet will want to offer enough food and accommodation for them to complete the journey.
The monks from Ratanagiri go walking most summers, simply with an almsbowl and sleeping-bag and they almost never go without. In fact, there is often a problem with too much food being given. Sometimes people begin by offering money which the monk has to decline, explaining that he can only accept food. Often this leads them to the nearest supermarket but by the time they return someone else has already filled the bowl.
In our hearts we have a feeling that the sign of a monk or nun means something. We are not so sure what it means, but there is a universality of recognition. In traditional Buddhist countries it is easy to understand how the sight of a samana triggers faith and hope. But even here in post-modern, secular Europe the sign carries a message.
People see something of themselves in this sign. They recognise by the appearance of a shaven head, robes and sandals, a human being who has said ‘no’ to personal gratification of desire – that is, if they don’t write us off as crazy, which does also happen. But more often there is a recognition. And I think what is recognized is the monk or nun inside of them; the one who contemplates life’s mysteries and seeks to see beyond the outer manifestations of the sensory world. By offering food to the ‘outer’ monk or nun, their ‘inner’ contemplative is nourished. By showing respect to someone seen to be living the renunciant life, their inner renunciant is honored. This is the meaning of the verse from the Mahamangala Sutta that we chanted at the commencement of today’s gathering;
Samananca dassanam etam mangalamutamam
The sight of a renunciant is a superior blessing.
If we recognize what is symbolized in the form of the monk or nun, that contemplative quality which sees beyond the outer appearance of things come alive for us. It is for this reason that such encounters often give rise to so much joy. It is indeed a blessing to reconnect with an aspect of truth in our own hearts – perhaps an aspect that we had forgotten or maybe the existence of which we had doubted or dismissed altogether.
Accordingly it seems to me that such signs have their place. They serve the truth in all of us, and whenever or wherever the truth is served, all beings benefit. This is the only reason this convention has lasted 2,500 years. It reflects our heart’s deepest yearning. It quickens a remembering of an inner longing to awaken tr our true inheritance.
The Blessing of Service
This inheritance is symbolized for us by the Buddha image. Seeing it can speak to us of what there is to be realized. The light created by the faith we have in a real reality generates hope and inspiration to walk this ancient Way. Our trust in Dhamma enlivens a natural wish to be of service to that which supports Dhamma. As we say in our Evening Puja;
“I am the Dhamma’s servant, the Dhamma is my Lord and guide. The
Dhamma is sorrow’s destroyer and bestows blessings on me…”
The words used here in translation may or may not work for us, but the sentiment is what matters. The spirit is the point, not the form. It is the spirit of serving Dhamma, in the service of wisdom, compassion and purity, that we are all united. We are equal and together in this, and as today we join in celebration of the birth, Enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha, let’s recall and refresh once more our appreciation for this blessing. Without his refuge in the Triple Gem, without this orientation of our heart’s longing, we would most likely be seeking security by clinging at something out of fear. How unfortunate and unnecessary to become rigid. Our willing surrender into service of the Way keeps us alive, all our body, speech and mind actively according with the precise and vibrant reality of this moment.
From one perspective, the witnessing of a friend’s Going Forth into the renunciant sangha may create a feeling of separation, but if this new opening is received with recognition of how we are united, any sadness won’t last for long. The radiance of reality outshines all shadows cast by false familiarity.
Typing: Quảng Đại Thắng (Brendan Trần) & Quảng Đại Khánh (Nathan Trần)